Feeling Florence

**This is something a little different—a piece I wrote for my travel writing class at SRISA using an interview with a fellow student. However, since it’s related to study abroad, I thought I would share here!

My head turns and I pause for a moment as I pass the San Lorenzo Leather Market, empty grocery bag in hand. I continue down the cobbled street, smiling as I pass bakery windows piled with cannoli, cornetti, tiramisu. In some ways, this is just another day—I am walking to the grocery store from class to pick up ingredients for dinner. I will go back to my apartment, cook pasta, finish my homework. But something is different beyond the location—studying abroad in Florence, I’ve noticed that I view and experience the world in a different way. At home, I find myself assuming daily life will be expected, boring, “normal.” Here, everything—from walking to class to shopping for groceries to stopping at a café—is exciting and fresh. Sarha Smith-Moyo, another study abroad student in Florence, has noticed the same phenomenon.

“I can see the sunrise and the sunset from my apartment every single day,” Sarha says, sipping hot chocolate from a Florentine café we both frequent. She recites the details of the view from her bedroom balcony—a nearby restaurant, a small house with lights on the deck, huge porches, and a neighbor’s cat perched on a shed. Though I must admit I haven’t watched the sun set every day, I’ve certainly paid more attention to the small things. I’ll stop to take note of interesting architecture or local Florentines going about their day, and I’ve savored every meal I’ve eaten. Thinking back, it’s difficult to remember details like this from my daily life in the United States.

In Sarha’s case, living in Florence has changed her overall mindset, too. Many aspects of studying abroad can be frustrating—culture shock, linguistic differences, homesickness. But life in Florence has given Sarha a more optimistic point of view. “It’s so hard to be frustrated when you have a beautiful place to live,” she says. “In New York, you can be mad, because it’s snowing and gross. But here, it’s beautiful.” Of course, I’ve still experienced bad days, and I’m sure that Sarha has as well. But so many new experiences to look forward to each week, it’s easy to stay persistently positive and excited for daily life.

So what is it that causes a shift in mindset when we move abroad? One conclusion from Sarha’s experience might be the beauty of Florence and its weather. As natives to New York and Wisconsin, Sarha and I transitioned from a cold, cloudy winter to a (relatively) warm and sunny spring. To some extent, I’m sure this a factor—it’s more difficult to maintain a cheerful mindset through weeks of cold with no sunshine. But after hearing local Florentines effuse about the beauty of snow, I wondered if it was less about beauty and more about change.

In the case of my own life, as well as Sarha’s, living in Florence has caused an obvious change in our daily life and routines. At home, I fall easily into a mindless routine of homework, Netflix, parties, friends, exercise—meanwhile ignoring my (often beautiful) surroundings. Specifically, Sarha explains how her habit of going to the gym has been replaced by wandering the streets of Florence. “When I was at school, I would think ‘I should go to the gym, I should do this, I should do that.’” Sarha explains. “But here, we’re in a constant state of motion. If I’m bored, I’ll just go outside for a while and roam around, which isn’t something I’d do at home.” At home, we treat free time as an opportunity to get things done; here, free time is a chance to explore, to enjoy, to savor. Going to the gym is a means to an end, but wandering around Florence is an experience in itself.

And when we return to our “normal” lives next semester? “I’m hoping that when I go back to school, I’ll take more walks around my neighborhood,” Sarha says. “It’s nice to know your city really well.” I can also hope that I’ll take more walks when I return, but beyond that, I hope I will take this mindset—a mindset where I appreciate the novelty of everyday life and notice all of the beautiful details. Even without bakeries and leather markets, I hope that I will be able to walk the streets of Wisconsin with renewed appreciation.